According to the Chinese zodiac, 2022 will be the year of the tiger, with the next year of the dog not scheduled until 2030, however, this may not hold true in the NRL. I’m seeing far better times for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs next year than for the Wests Tigers.
The last five years have seen the Bulldogs endure a horror run, finishing 11th on the ladder in 2017, then 12th for the next two years, 15th last year, and finally with the wooden spoon in 2021, while winning just three games in each of the last two seasons. Hardly good enough for a proud club that has won eight premierships and finished second ten times in their 86-year history.
To their credit, rather than sitting idly by like some clubs waiting for a favourable wind change, the Bulldogs have got busy. They’ve not only made some big recruitment calls by getting rid of their dead wood (I’m looking at you, Dylan Napa and Adam Elliott) and signing a host of players with talent, but have also brought rugby league influencer Phil Gould into the fold to give them more direction and clout.
So, how might the Bulldogs line up next season? The last time I checked, most of their 30 squad positions have now been filled, although there’s some doubt about the health of young Tui Katoa, so there may be the opportunity to add a couple more players before next year.
Here is what looks like to be their best team next year from the squad assembled to date. The recently recruited players have been marked with an asterisk and haven’t been discussed as I’ve assumed that they will all be in the Bulldogs’ top 17 somewhere.
1. Matt Dufty*
2. Josh Addo-Carr*
3. Brent Naden*
4. Aaron Schoupp – Schoupp doesn’t leave anything on the paddock, is a natural centre, and tackles as hard as he runs the ball. He’s odds-on to cement a permanent place in the Bulldogs backline next year.
5. Nick Cotric – Cotric will still only be 24 next season and already has 100 first grade games to his credit, together with appearances for both NSW and Australia. He has the opportunity to regain his position as one of the best wingers in the game again next year.
6. Matt Burton*
7. Jake Averillo – Halfback is still a weakness for the Bulldogs and Averillo looks to be the best option with both Brandon Wakeham and Kyle Flanagan probably behind him in the pecking order. Bailey Biondi-Odo may become an option as the season progresses.
8. Paul Vaughan*
9. Joshua Cook*
10. Luke Thompson – One of the best forwards in the Bulldogs pack who is yet to show his best on a week in week out basis. If he can get his discipline under control, he should emerge as the team’s forward leader next year.
11. Jack Hetherington – A big and aggressive ball runner, hopefully Hetherington’s appearance in the second row in the Bulldogs’ last game of the season against Wests is a sign of things to come. Hetherington looked at home in the back row and certainly has the speed and ball skills to make that position his own and cause some real havoc out wide.
12. Matt Doorey – Options for the second of the back row positions are Doorey, Joe Stimson, Jackson Topine, Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Corey Wadell. If Faitala-Mariner could put his injuries behind him and get some consistent game time he’d be a strong contender, but Doorey looks like the most obvious choice at this stage.
13. Josh Jackson – Jackson has been playing a lone hand for the Bulldogs for much of the last three years, but at 31 next season, will probably need to play less minutes if he is to play out the last two years of his contract with the Dogs. An inspirational leader and a tireless worker for his team.
14. Bailey Biondi-Odo – He finished the year well and showed some great flair in attack when given the opportunity. He’s still only young and not the biggest player going around so will need to be managed carefully.
15. Tevita Pangai Jr*
16. John Asiata*
17. Ava Seumanufagai – He’ll probably get the final bench position by default, given the lack of middle forward options. That said, he has been a strong performer for the Dogs in 2021.
So, that’s not a bad team, certainly a step up on anything that the Dogs put on the field during 2021. There are some positives and negatives to consider though.
•They have some versatile backs in the 17 including Naden, Cotric and Burton, who can all cover more than one position if required
•They have experienced outside backs Corey Allan and Jayden Okunbur waiting in the wings for their opportunity
•They have a forward pack with a strong middle, including workhorses Vaughan, Jackson and Thompson, and impact players in Pangai and Asiata
•If Jack Hetherington is given the chance to play on the edge, he could quickly develop into one of the best edge players in the game.
• Matt Dufty is enigmatic, to say the least, and will need to be given some time to establish himself at the back
•Matt Burton is the pick of their spine while the rest have yet to prove themselves
•Second row options in Corey Waddell and Joe Stimson are average at best, so the Dogs may look to young signing Josh Stuckey from the Northern Pride to step up when required.
Coach Trent Barrett has seemingly got his wish on the recruitment front, and now his challenge will be to bind these players into a team who respect the blue and white jersey and want to play for him. There are some interesting characters and egos in the squad who will need to be managed.
Players like Vaughan, Pangai, Addo-Carr, Naden, Dufty and Hetherington don’t come easy, so Barrett will have his work cut out for him. There will no doubt be an expectation of a change in fortunes, so notching up some early wins will be important.
I think that the Bulldogs can make some noise next season and certainly won’t be sitting on the bottom of the ladder.
2022, the year of the Dogs?